On being an Armenian-American in the Spring: Performing Identity through Genocide Recognition

April 7, 2010 at 12:53 am (Armenian-ness, diaspora, genocide, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I started to question the relationship between my identity as an Armenian-American and the campaign for genocide recognition last spring.  At the time, I was working with the Armenian Student Association at the University of Chicago on an event to commemorate the genocide.  I was asking myself and my fellow students: how do we, how can we commemorate the genocide?

Armenian genocide remembrance day is on April 24th, but the day is loaded with so much more than just memory.  This spring, as April 24th rounds the bend, I can outline pattern of emotion and action:

– Pre-April 24th speculation of what might happen commences after the holidays in diasporan presses, Armenian political and cultural circuits, and, in part by osmosis, the American media machine.

– There are campaign promises to the Armenian-American community be upheld or broken.  There are petitions, letters to the editor, diligent follow ups, and a huge public relations push by both the Armenian and Turkish lobbies.

– Suspense builds.  Will the committee/house/senate acknowledge the genocide?  Will my senator/president stand up for the truth?

– There is the volatile situation of the year, be it the war in Iraq, the “road map” between Armenia and Turkey, or, as is the case this year, the war in Iraq and now the delicate protocol approval process.  There is always something to be lost for American-Turkish diplomatic relations if the US recognizes the genocide – an ambassador, at the very least.

– What begins as a media simmer turns into a full boil as the big dogs make their statements by April: Christopher Hitchens, Robert Fisk, John Evans, Orhan Pamuk – non-Armenians brought into the studio or quoted in articles to balance arguments from the deep state Turkish side of the story.  That the Armenian ‘side’ is always countered with the official Turkish line adds insult to injury.

– April is the one month of the year when Armenians and their interests can be assured press coverage.  As a result, it is also the time of year when Armenians are most often referred to as a monolithic entity.  Whether we are referred to as Armenians or as ‘the’ diaspora, we are primarily portrayed in the collective, with identical interests.  Because April 24th is also the main push for genocide recognition, that collective identity, broadcasted annually, is pro-genocide recognition.

– By April 23rd, the Armenian community in America awaits the decision of its government in a dither built up from years of frustration paired with intense media coverage and, of course, the pain of commemorating another anniversary of the event that created their existence in dispersion.

– The president’s annual commemoration address creates a media event all on its own: how he phrases it is always a subject of speculation, anticipation, and, usually, disappointment.

– Ultimately, whatever is uttered on the 24th by the president or our community leaders is never sufficient to commemorate the deaths of our ancestors and, yet, year after year we go through this hellish roller coaster of pain, denial, and mourning.

Whether or not one is actively involved in the campaign for genocide recognition – by virtue of being Armenian in the United States one is subsumed into the ephemeral monolithic Armenian identity that hits the streets every April.  A combination of guaranteed, pre-April 24th media coverage and the intense efforts of diasporan political and cultural organizations creates the outline of an Armenian identity that is pro-genocide recognition.  This outline is fleshed-out by Armenian-Americans whose Armenian-ness is just one of multiple identities they wear at any one time.  The pattern of emotion and action I describe above allows ethnic, but not necessarily active, Armenians to perform their Armenian-ness through pre-organized and publicized channels.  Turkey’s utter denial of the genocide and opportunities for the United States to recognize it prompt diasporan passion and action.  Writing to one’s senator, signing a petition, or nodding one’s head at the television or church event as someone stands up for genocide recognition become moments of performance.   Through performance, one enters something bigger, if only for a moment, a month, or a season.  Threatened by assimilation, diasporans turn to performance to receive the warm embrace of an identity that is strong, vibrant, and needs them.

I point this out not to condemn the organizers or the performers, but to suggest the role that such a performance plays into homogenizing Armenian-diasporan identity in America.  By filling in this shell of Armenian-American identity, one forgoes the more challenging task of uncovering one’s personal relationship with one’s cultural heritage.  It is much easier to perform an Armenian identity in the ways expected on pre-designated dates than to explore the nature of being Armenian in the United States on, say, a Thursday in August.

The challenge with respect to April 24th is to commemorate without the hate – that is – to commemorate the event that shredded the social fabric of our ancestors’ communities without  focusing on modern Turkey’s denial or Barack Obama’s word choice.  The genocide scattered Armenians throughout the world where they established roots and raised the bulk of today’s diaspora in dispersion.  Now mature, the diaspora owes it to our ancestors to fight for justice, but not at the expense of nurturing our own, personal identies as Armenians.

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All-Armenia Tour ’09!!!

October 6, 2009 at 12:14 am (Armenian-Turkish relations, Diaspora-homeland relations, media, nationalism) (, , , , , , , , , )

I like the idea of an pan-Armenia tour. I would like to do one someday – hit up Manchester, Buenos Aires, Cairo…

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is wrapping up his week-long all-Armenia tour in Rostov-on-Don/Rostov-na-Donu after stops in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Beirut. His purpose: to rep the protocols to the protocol-bashers, namely, diasporans around the world.

You might have heard about his reception. In Paris, protesters scuffled with the police. In NYC, young activists fought to have their voices heard. In Los Angeles, thousands picketed Sargsyan, shouting votch! (no!) outside of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

dont betray UHaul parked across from the Armenian consulate in Los Angeles.  Credit: StopTheProtocols.com

"don't betray" UHaul parked across from the Armenian consulate in Los Angeles. Credit: StopTheProtocols.com

The protests were not limited to Sargsyan’s tour, either – protests have sprung up in Montreal, Toronto, and Argentina. Glendale and Los Angeles – if we can separate the two – have been particularly active both before and after Sargsyan’s visit.

Like good activists, diasporan organizers have done an excellent job gathering protesters and publicizing their events. Conflicts between picketers and riot police – caught on camera and video – nicely convey the passion these diasporans feel about the protocols. To the media, it sure looks like the diaspora is unified in their opposition Indeed – as discussed previously – the diasporan political parties are mostly united – and more groups join in every day – the Zoryan Institute, AGBU, various schools and churches. The combination of self-promotion paired with the sudden burst of diasporan activism ensures that the protests will make the news.

This worries me. While I do no oppose the protocols, I do not fully support them either. You are not going to find me on a street corner with a witty poster because I am not a blind nationalist – of the Republic or of the nation. I see benefits and dangers in the protocols, but I am willing to let them play out. They will not fix everything – and they will not ruin everything. However, I am not inspired by Armenian youths in California forming a human chain to prevent Sargsyan from visiting their local genocide memorial. In fact, I see some really detrimental behavior shaping up in the form of these protests:

1. Like with section 907 of the Freedom of Support Act – the diaspora is once again actively interfering with Armenia’s foreign policy. The opposition claims that Armenia is not on equal negotiating grounds with Turkey – but have they considered their role in tipping the power scales against Armenia?

2. Diasporan media outlets are owned by diasporan political parties and those parties are part of the anti-protocol coalition. They promote and report on the opposition – and that becomes the de facto truth. Like I said, I am not out there repping my ambivalence towards the protocols – and that wouldn’t be nearly as sexy as straight-up opposition anyways. When there is only one voice speaking for the diaspora – that will become the only voice.

NYC protest  Credit: Asbarez

NYC protest Credit: Asbarez

3. Diasporan youth are being indoctrinated into an Armenian identity that is primarily based on the Armenian cause. This is not new. However, the urgency of the situation is new. Youths tend to take these revolutionary things pretty seriously, and hatred will form. Hatred without proper means of reconciliation gets desperate, and that leads to extremism.

My inner pessimist is already anticipating the day when the protocols will fail and a roar of victory will rise up from the diaspora: “we did it! now we can get back to advocating for Turkey’s admission of the genocide.” I love the activism, I love the passion – I just think it is misguided. If the diaspora’s goal is to achieve recognition for the genocide from Turkey (I will leave NK out of this for now) the diaspora needs to start becoming the change they want to see. It isn’t going to happen by force, guilt, or political pressure – it will happen through knowledge and understanding.

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Stop the Peace, I mean, Protocols

September 21, 2009 at 3:22 pm (Armenian-Turkish relations, Diaspora-homeland relations) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Diasporan dissent is hitting the streets with a new campaign called Stop the Protocols.  This coalition of Armenian youth groups and diasporan organizations opposes protocols between the Armenian and Turkish governments that would establish diplomatic relations between the countries and open their shared border.  According to the Stop the Protocols website:

These protocols, if accepted by Armenia, will result in the surrendering of the Armenian Cause*, the end for Karabakh’s independence, and the nullification of the Armenian people’s legal rights to historic Armenia.

[*The Armenian Cause, once broadly understood as all efforts towards maintaining Armenian-ness in dispersion (language, food, music, religion) is now commonly used to describe the campaign for genocide recognition and all related activities.]

Rally poster, Photo in poster credit: armenianamerica.wordpress.com

These protocols, understandably, trigger many of the passions and fears of the diaspora.  However, what is surprising to me is how unified the diaspora is when it comes to condemning the protocols.    All three political parties active in the diaspora (and yes, the Armenian diaspora has had full fledged political parties for 90+ years) are supporting a “Stop The Protocols” rally in California on September 27th.  That’s the Dashnaks, Hnchaks, and Ramgavars.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised by this.  These three groups have unified in the past for genocide recognition campaigns.  Furthermore, the likelihood that the protocols will translate into action is high, so opposition to them might seem like these parties’ last hope to represent their diasporan constituents before the protocols push them and their goals into oblivion.  The Stop the Protocols coalition also includes the ARF Shant Student Association, Unified Young Armenians, Armenian Youth Federation, Woodbury University Armenian Students Association, and the UCLA Armenian Students Association.

While I understand their drive, I disagree with their position.  The diaspora is comfortable speaking on behalf of the Armenian nation; however, the diaspora has the economic and social stability to be idealistic.  The diaspora and its political parties can afford (financially and ideologically) to be stridently nationalistic, seek reparations, demand autonomy for NK, and make genocide recognition the focus of their political activism.  It is really easy to be an armchair nationalist, write some checks, and rant about Obama dodging the g-word.  It is much harder to make a living in the Ararat valley and worry about your son’s mandatory military service and whether or not he will be sent to NK.    Of course the Armenians of Armenia are concerned about NK, genocide recognition, and mets hayk – but they are also the ones who have the deal with the day-to-day reality of two closed borders, a smoldering war, and missed opportunities for trade, tourism, and pipelines.  So when diasporan groups speak on behalf of the Armenian nation, it comes across as selfish and self-indulgent.

I also disagree with the doomsday effect the Stop the Protocols campaign is forecasting if the protocols are signed.  The end of the Armenian cause is impossible.  I think this fear is based on Turkey’s ongoing genocide denial and the potential for the genocide to be used as a bartering chip in negotiations, from the state-to-state rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey to regional relationships – like Turkey’s accession to the EU.   While I agree that it might be harder to get Turkey to recognize the genocide after Armenia and Turkey establish relations, truth be told, getting Turkey to recognize the genocide hasn’t been going so well for the past century.  Blaming the death of the Armenian cause on the protocols sounds defeatist to me.

credit: Tufenkian Foundation

credit: Tufenkian Foundation

Blaming the protocols for ending NK’s independence is also uncalled for.  First of all, NK’s independence is kind of weak – not even Armenia recognizes NK as an independent nation.  Furthermore, Turkey has long had a hand in the peace process and continues to have an interest – protocols or not.  After a 15-year ceasefire, it is time for the NK conflict to be resolved, and not everyone is going to be happy about it.  The diaspora is attached to the NK conflict because of how it resonates with 1915; however it is not true nor fair to equate Nagorno Karabakh to eastern Anatolia.

And finally – the Stop the Protocols campaign is also opposed to the protocols because they would nullify the “legal rights” of Armenians to historic Armenia.  When it comes to territory, the diaspora has always been on its own:  not a single Armenian president has ever made claims on Eastern Anatolia, including the current one.  However, several cases out of California have made inroads into reclaiming financial assets.  I think this is more realistic.

credit: stoptheprotocols.com

credit: stoptheprotocols.com

What the campaign boils down to is a conflict between the Republic of Armenia and its diaspora over who best represents the Armenian nation.  Traditional, nationalism is the domain of nation states; however, the Armenian diaspora has its own nationalism complete with political parties and political agendas.  More and more, the President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan is excluding the diasporan perspective from Armenia’s national and foreign policies.  As the Stop the Protocols campaign demonstrates, the diaspora is ready and willing to strike back.

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Sibel Edmonds and the Armenian-American fan-fest ’09

August 30, 2009 at 7:06 pm (diaspora, genocide recognition, media) (, , , , , )

Over the past month there has been a flurry of activity among US diasporan news sources centered on Sibel Edmonds.  And they always use this picture.

Sibel Edmonds

Sibel Edmonds

Edmonds has been whistle-blowing since 2002, so what is it about August 2009 that has diasporan communities abuzz?

To refresh your memory, Edmonds was hired by the FBI as a translator in 2001, but was fired less than a year later after accusing a fellow linguist of espionage and raising allegations of fraud and corruption within the bureau.  Even though a 2005 Inspector General’s report generally supported Edmonds claims, she has been gagged from presenting her claims in court.  Of particular interest to the Armenian-American community are Edmonds claims about the Turkish lobby, which she accused of paying off congress members to keep Armenian genocide recognition legislation off the floor.  While mainstream media has tread lightly on the story, Armenian American media has covered it intently.

Leave it to Ohio to keep the media pinwheel turning.  David Krikorian, the democratic candidate for Ohio’s 2nd congressional district in the 2010 elections, is following Edmond lead by whistle-blowing on his rival in the 2008 elections.  According to Krikorian, republican representative Jean Schmidt “took more money from the Turkish lobby than any other single Member of the U.S. Congress” to fund her 2008 election.  Schmidt filed nine complaints against Krikorian for disseminating these allegations, five of which are still on the table to be decided on by the Ohio Election Committee September 3rd.  Krikorian called on Edmonds to appear as a witness; however, it remains to be seen if she will be allowed to testify in person.

The nature of Sibel Edmonds allegations about the Turkish lobby secured her position as the darling of the US Armenian diaspora.  The Krikorian-Schmidt hearing could potentially give Edmonds her long awaited day in court.  (Her video deposition is already available online.)  All of this synergy explains the hubbub in diasporan news outlets – but perhaps the stakes are a bit higher…

Krikorian has really come out gun-blazing with these allegations, calling Schmidt’s funding “blood money to deny the genocide of Christian Armenians by Muslim Turks.”  Krikorian also invokes the diaspora’s strong feelings about US genocide recognition to fund his campaign:

I ask Armenian Americans to give as generously as they possible can. If they do that, we will certainly have the financial resources to beat one of our worst enemies in the U.S. Congress. If the community is not willing to embrace this campaign, with all that they can possibly do, then we should never complain when the U.S. government doesn’t recognize the genocide, because my Congressional race is ground zero of the Armenian Genocide battle. Ground zero!

Krikorian is attaching his hearing and campaign to the Armenian genocide to win Armenian hearts and wallets.

I can’t blame Krikorian for using the hearings and Edmonds’s status to publicize his campaign – or to raise money – because plenty of politicians have tapped that angle before.  The aspect of this unfurling saga that bothers me is the centrality of genocide recognition – and the US government’s repeated failure to do so – in the media’s coverage.  Here we are in the genocide recognition off-season (post-April 24th) and Edmonds, Krikorian, his hearing, and her testimony are all opportunities for diasporan media outlets to reinforce the centrality of genocide recognition on their readerships.  Through editorials and interviews, diasporan readers are fed yet more pleas for attention and money to be focused on genocide recognition.  I am sure this is not the conscious objective of editors and, as I have previously discussed, the diaspora by and large bases its identity on the genocide and generally wants it recognized by everyone – so they are a willing audience.  Nevertheless, the ongoing Edmonds-Krikorian saga is symptomatic of what I see as a narrowing spiral of Armenian American identity, coiling tighter and tighter around genocide recognition.  Edmonds complements, and Krikorian feeds, this monolithic Armenian-American identity as the media reports on it.

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